The Basic Ecclesial Communities in the Philippines:
Recent Developments and Trends
Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR
What is the state of the BECs in the Philippines? What are the recent trends and developments? This is the question that I often encounter after starting my work as executive secretary of the committee on BECs of the CBCP.
We don’t have the exact statistical quantitative and qualitative data about the BECs at the moment. This is what we will be doing this October as we hold the National Gathering of Diocesan BEC directors in Taytay, Rizal. The regional assemblies that will be held starting next year followed by a national assembly later will give us a more accurate data and assessment. What I will be presenting here is just a preliminary assessment which needs to be validated in due time.
Before discussing the key trends and developments, let me present a brief historical overview.
In the late 1960s, immediately after Vatican II, foreign missionaries in the frontier mission areas in Mindanao and Negros formed the first BECs. The Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) which was first held in 1971 and since then meets every 3 years was instrumental in propagating these BECs all over Mindanao with the local clergy and lay pastoral workers continuing what the foreign missionaries started. Some dioceses and parishes in Visayas and Luzon would soon adopt the formation of BECs as their pastoral thrust. The first wave of BECs that emerged were formed under the martial law regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The military and some bishops suspected many BECs of being influenced or infiltrated by the Left. Consequently, there were BECs that were harassed by the military and some of their leaders and members arrested and even murdered. Many of those that were affected were communities organized by the BCC-CO (Basic Christian Community-Community Organizing) program which was suspected of supporting and promoting the ideological and political agenda of the NDF and the CPP. There were bishops who would not allow the BECs to be formed in their dioceses. But some of the more progressive bishops continued to support the BECs, but they were a minority. The formation of BECs depended mostly on the initiative and support of the local parish priest with the aid of some groups/institution like the BCC-CO, BEC-Service Office, Redemptorist Mission Teams, DC team and Bukal ng Tipan. Some of the BECs, to play safe, would limit their activities to prayer meeting and bible-sharing and tone down or abandon the social action/prophetic component.
After the fall of the Marcos regime and the restoration of democracy, it became easier to build up BECs and to engage in social action. There were BECs in San Fernando, Bukidnon that successfully waged a campaign against logging that led to the imposition of a total log ban in the province by President Corazon Aquino in 1989. Other BECs in Zamboanga were involved in anti-logging, anti-mining and anti-dam campaigns. Around this period there were BECs in North Cotabato and Negros affected by the armed conflict between government forces and the New People’s Army (NPA) guerillas declared zones of peace. There were also some BECs that revived or initiated livelihood projects, cooperatives and sustainable agriculture.
In 1991, the second Plenary Council was held and the vigorous promotion and formation of BECs all over the Philippines was adopted as a pastoral priority. The plenary council came up with this decree:
“Basic Ecclesial Communities under various names and forms – BCCs, small Christian communities, covenant communities – must be vigorously promoted for the full living of the Christian vocation in both urban and rural areas.” (Art 109)
The council directed the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to
“issue an official statement on BECs, on their nature and functions as recognized by the Church, making it clear that they are not simply another organization. This official statement of the CBCP shall be, among others things, for the proper orienting of priests and seminarians. Training for work with BECs shall be made part of seminary formation.” (Art 110)
Thus, after the plenary council the second wave of the emergence of BECs took place. As part of the implementation of the PCP II thrust, many dioceses in Visayas and Luzon started their BEC program while for others it was a matter of renewing their efforts. There has been a phenomenal growth of BECs in these regions since then. In Mindanao where the BECs first emerged and where they have become part of the structure of the diocese, many BEC needed to be revitalized due to stagnation that had set in or the weakening due to militarization.
Trends and Developments
Mainstreaming: Owning of BEC as pastoral priority of most dioceses and the CBCP
The number of dioceses that have adopted the formation of BECs as a pastoral priority has increased through the years. In 2002, there were 51 dioceses that participated in the BEC national assembly in Cebu. In 2005, there were 65 dioceses that sent delegates to the BEC national assembly. In 2008, there were 67 participating dioceses out of a total of 85 dioceses. Although, attendance of diocesan delegates in National Assemblies cannot be used as an accurate gauge for determining whether the BECs are regarded as pastoral priority by these dioceses, this can be used as an indicator. A more accurate data is forthcoming. Whatever the case, formation of BECs have been adopted as part of the vision-mission and goal of many dioceses.
What is significant is that in most cases, the formation of BECs is regarded as the pastoral thrust of the whole diocese rather than just the initiative of the parish priest or some external pastoral agency. In many dioceses, the various diocesan commissions (liturgy, catechetics, social action, youth, family & life) are geared towards the formation of BECs. The BECs are becoming the basic pastoral unit of the parish which is seen as a network of BECs. The rate of growth and expansion is not uniform. In many parishes and dioceses that have just started there are only pilot areas that are still to be replicated. In other dioceses, they are already part of the structure of the diocese and parishes.
The CBCP has been supportive in the promotion of BECs. The 2005 BEC National Assembly was the first CBCP-sponsored assembly. The proposal of the 2002 National Assembly for a CBCP national office had earlier been approved by the CBCP. The Episcopal Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities of the CBCP was finally set up in 2007. The setting up of this committee is an expression of the acceptance and support by the CBCP of the BECs as a pastoral priority. The chairmen of the major episcopal commissions (such as biblical apostolate, social action, liturgy, education and catechetics, family and life, youth, laity, and canon law) are members of the BEC committee. This expresses the view that all these commissions can contribute to the growth of BECs and that these areas are constitutive dimensions in the life of the BECs.
A More Unified and Holistic Vision of BECs: Integration of Social Action with Evangelization & Liturgy
In the 1980s, it was fashionable to classify BECs into liturgical, development and liberational models. The BCC-CO program was known for promoting a more liberational/militant model of BECs and regarded other BEC models promoted by the MSPC and BEC-Service Office as liturgical models – and hence more conservative and traditional. Those espousing the liberational model were suspected of having ideological agenda.
The PCP II Vision of a Renewed Church provided a more holistic vision for BECs:
“our vision of the Church as communion, participation and mission, about the Church as priestly, prophetic and kingly people, and a Church of the poor, that is a renewed Church, is today finding expression in one ecclesial movement, that is the movement to foster Basic Ecclesial Communities” (PCP II 137).
PCP II further describes the BECs as:
“small communities of Christian usually of families who gather around the Word of God & the Eucharist.These communities are united to their pastors but are ministered to regularly by lay leaders.The members know each other by name and share not only the Word of God and the Eucharist but also their concerns both material and spiritual. They have a strong sense of belongingness and responsibility for one another. (PCP II 138)
Usually emerging from the grassroots among poor farmers and workers,
BECs consciously strive to integrate their faith and their daily life.
They are guided and encouraged by regular catechesis. Poverty and their faith urge their members towards solidarity with one another, action for justice and towards a vibrant celebration of life in the liturgy.” (PCP II 139).”
PCP II further promoted the task of renewed integral evangelization which includes “renewed catechesis, renewed worship and renewed social apostolate.” The PCP II vision of BECs did away with the competing models and integrated the liturgical, developmental and liberational model.
Subsequently, the BCC-CO and the BEC-SO ideological tension and rivalry which heightened in the 1980s up to the mid-1990s became passé. These programs/agencies ended by the beginning of the millennium.
Since the 1990s, the National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) has promoted the BEC-based social action program The NASSA Country Program (BEC-based Integral Evangelization Program) which started in the early 2000s involved 30 dioceses, with 5 pilot parishes per diocese and 10 pilot BECs per parish. Various programs were introduced at the BEC level: sustainable agriculture, livelihood projects, peace advocacy, environmental protection, microfinance, community-based health program, skills training, good governance, etc. The impact of this BEC-based social action program has still to be assessed and its results replicated.
In a survey conducted before the 2008 BEC national assembly (with responses from 40 dioceses) this is the general picture that emerged:
93% have initiated BEC-based programs that respond to the problem of poverty: e.g. IGP, livelihood projects, micro-finance, small-enterprise development, cooperatives, feeding program, etc.
51% Justice & Peace-Integrity of Creation Program
49% ecology, waste management, sustainable agriculture program
41% have BEC-based health program
39% Political Education
20% Skills/Capability Building Program
12% Sectoral Projects
These figures could have been heavily influenced by the NASSA country program which concentrated in pilot parishes/BECs. While this data does not give an accurate picture of how many BECs are actually engaged in these programs, it shows that there is a high percentage among the dioceses that have accepted a more holistic and integral vision of BECs. There could still be a big gap between this vision and the reality among many of the BECs.
Diversity of forms and shapes of BECs
Various shapes and forms of BECs have emerged in the country. There are chapel-centered communities. These are communities with 30 to 200 families, mostly in the rural areas and also urban areas in Mindanao that made use of the barrio/barangay chapel structures and organizations. Most of the BEC gathering and activities are held in the chapel which is considered as the social space or center of the community.
There are also BECs which are chapel-centered but subdivided into neighborhood cells and family groupings (8-15 families per grouping). The BEC in the barangay or village is a network of neighborhood cells. The members of each cell gather in the homes during weekdays, while all the cells in a BEC gather in the chapel for their regular assembly and Eucharistic celebration (monthly or bi-monthly).
In the urban centers, there are neighborhood cells or family groupings without a chapel. These are found mostly in big cities. Most, if not all, of the activities are done in the homes of the members of the cells. The gathering of the wider community for assembly and the Eucharist is often done in public places – covered basketball court, side-streets, barangay hall or school-houses. There has been a tendency to regard the neighborhood cell consisting of 8-15 members as the BEC itself rather than a BEC-cell which is part of a wider community.
The Growth of BECs in Urban Areas
BECs first emerged mostly in rural impoverished areas of Mindanao and in Negros. There was a perception that they will only thrive in rural communities which are homogeneous by nature and where everyone knows one another. Many believed that it would be very difficult to form BECs in the cities, especially among the middle and upper-classes. With a rapid urban migration, this was indeed a cause for concern.
Yet over the years, many BECs have emerged in the urban areas – in Davao, Surigao, Cebu, Ormoc, Metro-Manila, Lingayen, Dagupan, Aparri and other major cities. There are even BECs that have been formed in upper-class subdivisions. This requires new ways and approaches of building BECs and new forms and structures – different from the methods used in rural areas. Their stories have yet to be told and the best practices have to be culled and disseminated.
Growth of Volunteerism among lay pastoral agents
In the past, the formation of BECs depended mostly on paid-full time pastoral workers. Many ordinary parishes could not afford a big number of full-time BEC practitioners. In recent times, many BEC parish formation teams have sprouted. These formation teams are composed mostly of part-time volunteers who are fully committed to assist in the formation of BECs. They have their own jobs and sources of income. Some of them are retired and receiving pensions. Some of them are members of lay organizations and movements. There are still a few paid, full-time pastoral workers but the majority are now volunteers (in some cases, one to two full-time workers and ten to twently part-time volunteers).This is generating a sense of missionary dynamism among lay people. This also emphasizes that forming BECs is not a full-time job. It is a mission which anyone can do even if he has other work or profession.
Incorporation of BECs in Priestly/Religious Formation and Clergy Ongoing Formation
In many surveys, one of the blocks mentioned in the growth of BECs is the lack of support and initiative of the clergy. It was also recognized that BECs are vibrant where the clergy take an active role in its promotion.
In response to this concern, some seminaries and formation programs all over the Philippines have incorporated the BEC-thrust. The structures of some seminaries and houses of formation are patterned after the BEC-cells. They do not only talk about BECs but live it as a way of life among themselves. The BECs is also incorporated in various theology courses: e.g. Sacred Scriptures (esp. New Testament), Ecclesiology, Missiology, Ministry and Orders, Pastoral Leadership and Management, etc. This is also part of the pastoral formation program on weekends and summer vacation. Seminarians are assigned to live and work in BECs. They learn the skills of evangelizing and organizing BECs.
Some female religious orders have also incorporated BECs in the formation program of their postulants, novices and junior sisters.
Several gathering among seminary administrators and religious formators have been held over the years to share their experience of integrating BECs in priestly/religious formation. In 2012, the Episcopal Commission on Seminaries will hold a nationwide assembly of seminary administrators and one of the talks will focus on BECs and how it affects the seminary formation.
Some dioceses are also integrating BEC formation for the newly-ordained deacons or priests. Some have also incorporated this in the ongoing formation program for the clergy. Seminars and retreats about Priestly Ministry and BECs have been given. This is in line with the awareness that a new way of being Church requires a new way of being priest – a renewed clergy for a renewed Church.
These are the trends and developments that are happening regarding BECs in the Philippines. In spite of the pessimism of some who think that BECs are either dead or have failed to grow, these trends are indeed encouraging. They are the signs of hope. Like light, salt and leaven, BECs even in their smallness are making a difference. They are growing slowly, accompanied by the Holy Spirit. They are “creative minorities” who are living as a genuine communities of disciples of Christ, proclaiming the good news and witnessing to it, and transforming the Church and Philippine society. Like the kingdom of God, they are “already but not yet” reality. They are dream that is in the process of becoming a reality.